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Earthquake Preparedness in San Diego: Renewed Fears after Recent Events

Image of the Rose Canyon Fault Line in San Diego. Image credit to Google Earth.

A series of earthquakes in Turkey and Syria have resulted in over 50,000 fatalities, according to the United Nations. On Feb. 6, a 7.8 and 7.5 magnitude earthquake series struck the region followed by multiple aftershocks, per the United States Geological Survey

This event renewed fears about a potential earthquake in San Diego and the need for increased preparedness. San Diego City is located in close proximity to the San Andreas Fault, which stretches from the Salton Sea to Cape Mendocino and the Rose Canyon Fault. This is part of the larger San Andreas Fault system and runs through La Jolla, Old Town, and Coronado.

According to the Southern California Earthquake Center, these fears are not unfounded. While earthquakes are not entirely predictable, they do follow geological patterns. Their research found a 75% chance of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hitting Southern California in the next 30 years and a 36% chance of a 7.5 magnitude earthquake. 

Thomas Rockwell, professor of geological sciences at San Diego State University, offered insight on the last major earthquake in San Diego along the Rose Canyon Fault Zone in an article published in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America, where he was one of the main contributors.

Via the article, “The last relatively larger magnitude earthquake on the RCFZ (Rose Canyon Fault Zone) at Old Town was apparently sometime in the mid-1700s likely just prior to the Spanish colonization of Southern California.” 

Rockwell studied the recurrence rate of activity along the Rose Canyon Fault Zone and found a pattern in the duration between large earthquakes.

The article furthered, “The RCFZ has a 700 to 800-year recurrence interval for relatively larger magnitude earthquakes, M6.7 to M7, that likely rupture the entire onshore portion of the RCFZ in San Diego.”

The Earthquake Engineering Research Institute conducted a model to assess the damages of this exact scenario in San Diego City. The study concluded that a 6.9 magnitude earthquake on the Rose Canyon Fault would cause $38 billion in building and infrastructure damages and several hundred casualties.

San Diego residents have mixed reactions to the possibility of an earthquake. Estevan Garza, second-year international studies major at Point Loma Nazarene University (PLNU), expressed a sense of calm regarding the potential threat of an earthquake.

“Growing up, you hear that there is going to be a big earthquake coming, but it is not a big fear of mine,” Garza said. “I suppose it is because I just do not want to live in fear.”

Garza, a San Diego native, has experienced small earthquakes, as well as participated in earthquake drills while attending school. Despite this, he still voiced his concerns about the level of preparedness among residents in the event of an earthquake.

“So many people would be unprepared, including myself. There has not been a big earthquake in a long time,” Garza said.

Given the likelihood of an earthquake in the future, the California and San Diego governments have taken steps to prepare for and mitigate its potential impact. These steps have included specific building codes, geologic hazard studies, and earthquake drills and training.

California Education Code 32282 states its purpose is “to ensure that pupils and both the certificated and classified staff are aware of, and properly trained in, the earthquake emergency procedure system.”

To accomplish this, it requires schools to hold at least one “drop procedure” each year, a drill in which students and faculty take cover under a table or desk, with their heads protected by their arms, and their backs to the windows.

Salina Valencia, director of legislation & communication at the State of California Seismic Safety Commission, offered clarification on the standing policies regarding earthquake safety.

The Private Schools Building Safety Act of 1986 ensures that private schools are “afforded equivalent earthquake safety as afforded public school students,” said Valencia.

Furthermore, Valencia provided clarity on what classifies as a “private school.”

“A ‘private school structure’ is defined by California law as ‘any building used for educational purposes through the 12th grade by 50 or more persons for more than 12 hours per week or four hours in any one day,’” Valencia said. 

Under this definition, these seismic safety policies do not apply to private universities like Point Loma Nazarene University. Regardless, other universities like the University of San Diego and the University of Southern California still participate in annual earthquake drills to ensure preparedness among students and faculty. While PLNU’s Emergency Preparedness page offers a brief list of instructions on what to do before, during, and after an earthquake, PLNU’s earthquake preparedness training is limited to this information. 

Despite attempts to contact PLNU’s Department of Public Safety, there has been no response to several inquiries regarding earthquake preparedness on campus. 

Macy Norby, a resident assistant in PLNU’s Nease Residence Hall and a Colorado native, acknowledged her lack of knowledge on what to do during an earthquake. 

“All I have heard is that you should go under a doorway,” Norby said, who has never experienced an earthquake drill or training in her life.

Norby said she believes earthquake training would be helpful to the student body because it could be easily implemented and has the potential to save lives in the case of a major earthquake.

The recent earthquake in Turkey and Syria is a grim reminder of the potential devastation that earthquakes can bring. To help mitigate the impact of such events, the City of San Diego has provided personal guidelines on how to prepare for and respond to an earthquake:

  • To prepare for an earthquake, identify safe spots at home and work, establish an out-of-area contact, and prepare a disaster supplies kit. 
  • Eliminate hazards in your home by bolting tall furniture to wall studs, removing unsecured items, and installing strong latches on cupboards. 
  • During an earthquake, use the Drop, Cover, and Hold technique, avoid taking cover by windows or heavy furniture, and stay away from buildings, trees, streetlights, and power lines if outside.
  • After the earthquake, stay indoors until authorities say it is safe, check for damages, and monitor radio news reports for emergency information.

For a comprehensive guide on earthquake preparedness, please visit the San Diego government’s official website at https://www.sandiego.gov/fire/safety/tips/earthquake. Here, you can find a detailed list of tips and recommendations to help you better prepare for an earthquake and minimize its potential impact.

Written By: Kyle Cassani